A Tribute to HRH, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip
It is a natural tendency for us to think of political offices as intrinsically public. After all, the etymological roots of ‘republic’ is the Latin res publica, meaning public affairs, matters – or even just ‘thing’. Consequently, discussions of political affairs were usually phrased in relation to the ‘republic’, even as far back as Jean Bodin in the mid-sixteenth century. Aristotle did not have access to the word ‘republic’ but if he did, his conceived citizen-polity would probably have used it.
By its very nature, monarchy is not res publica. It is not a thing of the public; and much of its power came from its mystery and magic, which required the very opposite of public life – privacy. Monarchy thrives from the belief by the public world of the distinctly unpublic matter of monarchy, of a family and a heritage that was both dedicated to the service of the body politic and responsible for leading it. Medieval artistry, jurisprudence, theology, literature and philosophy all conceived of the same thing; the monarch as the ‘head’ of the body politic, in an organological metaphor that all political thinkers instinctively understood.
But the day of organic kingship had passed by the mid-twentieth century. As the demands of democracy, of bringing the practice of governance closer and closer to the people, wrought their impacts on the constitution of the British polity, monarchy could no longer rely on the mystery of distance. The monarchy was no longer an organic institution, but had to play by the rules of liberal modernity that saw institutions as artificial constructs, intended to deliver outcomes, not express inherent truths.
Prince Philip understood this. As a boy, his family was exiled following the Greco-Turkish War, and his family’s monarchical relationship to Denmark disappeared as time went on. But, growing up in Britain, Prince Philip understood the respect the people held for our monarchy, but knew how quickly it could sour. As a result, his legacy to the monarchy of Great Britain was one of reconciliation; whilst Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has navigated modern British democracy excellently, Prince Philip has left a monarchy in concert with the British spirit.
Even at Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, Prince Philip revealed his genius for public spirit in two strokes: the first being his push for the coronation to be televised; and the second in his pledging of himself to ‘become [Her Majesty’s] liege man of life and limb and of earthly worship’. In televising the coronation, the monarchy did not do away with the majesty and mystery of ceremony, but instead brought it to the common person. And part of this was Prince Philip’s very uncommon pledge to put his national identity above his marital one; to do so showed the nation that monarchy is more powerful in its respect for duty and obedience than democracy ever can be.
A monarchy that is dependent on neither mystery nor reverence, and Prince Philip’s tireless charity work, an attitude his eldest son and grandson each carry forward in their own lives, showed an instinctual understanding of the British people’s respect for hard work and, whilst the monarchy might not be a public possession, it can be dedicated to public service.
May he rest in peace.